Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 19 July 2015





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Faith over fate

Ramazan for the IDPs in Puttalam:

It is the onetime in an entire year when things look different for these people, displaced due to a long drawn out internal conflict, over quarter century ago.

Muslim IDP children in puttalam                                     - Tableaux of Aufidius

The IDPs in Puttalam are different, according to the displaced themselves. They feel there is less focus on them, all because they have failed to vociferously raise the issue of displacement and make strong calls for restitution and resettlement as others did.

What is also different is their lack of complaints for what they do not have, as they remain focused on their immediate needs. Even that is less of a priority as they currently focus on something entirely different – their spiritual journey and a greater understanding of Islam during the holy month.

Breaking fast

It’s almost 6.00 p.m. and families in the Mujabdeen Puram IDP camp slowly assemble out in the open. There is a small tent, under which there is a large centrally-placed pot of ‘kanji’(porridge). A few trays are also placed next to it, laden with sweets and dates. It is simple, just as these people are.

As dusk falls, children are the first to rush towards the open area where people gather, after a long day.

Soon, their parents make their way from the small one-bed roomed homes to break the fast. During the entire day, they have been toiling in the hot sun.

It’s Iftar time in this displaced camp in Sri Lanka’s North West, home to Muslim IDPs evicted in the 90s by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) from the North.

There is no remorse or regret as they gather to pray. For them, it is a time of sharing in the true spirit of Islam and one that strongly binds the community.

“It is the one time when I don’t feel hopeless about being an internally displaced person, driven away from my home.

We are a community and we support each other. We forget our sad past as we pray together and break the fast, together,” says Saudeena Nuruldeen (39), a mother of two children, her children born in this camp for the displaced and unaware of the world from which their mother come from.

Ramazan essentials                                                                                        

With thousands of Muslim IDPs still living in displaced camps, with the largest concentration still found in Puttalam, the settlement is testimony to the island’s 27-year old war and a forgotten community whose resettlement issues, consigned to the political backburner for all that time.

The day’s heat is replaced by a cool breeze as they pray together, in unison. The women mostly pray from the confines of their home but join the ‘community’ to break the fast. Their men have just returned home after a hard day’s work and wait patiently for the Azan to break the fast.

“I have never known anything outside this camp. Outsiders call it ‘camp’ but for us it is home,” says Fathum Salahuddeen, a 13 year-old girl who says: “Iftar is my happiest time because everyone gets together.”

Fathum does not share her mother Mehurnisa’s understanding of the need to break the fast ‘in community.’ Their little homes hardly have the space to facilitate such an exercise. “I cook outside and would ideally like to gather inside a living room (which does not exist) to break the fast, with my family,” says Mehurnisa. They have long since given up on such luxuries as they concentrate on what little is available – and would rather not have poverty interfering with their religious zeal. But Mehurnisa is far from unhappy.

A member of the displaced community since 1996, she recalls how other displaced families to till a small plot to land and helped her bring up children. “During Ramazan, this community feels closer than ever before. With each passing year, we get closer,” she said.


The families receive, unlike any other time, assistance from other Muslim families, both financially and otherwise. “During this period, people are specially focused on a spiritual path. They share more and look for people like us, who need support. The children are the happiest during Ramazan. On festival day and the next day, they receive gifts and we momentarily forget our plight as displaced persons,” says Dawood Bawa (43), who works as a plumber. He has just returned home, with minutes to spare, in order to break the fast with his family. For these people, the harsh climate of Puttalam, the arid air, the lack of potential for cultivation and the scarcity of water are temporarily cast aside during the ‘season.’

Driven out

Out of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the island, Puttalam IDPs have for long been the politically ignored.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, among them, 89 per cent, or up to 65,500 IDPs, were living in host communities, the remainder in camps and about 550 in a relocation site, as of 1 July 2015. The overwhelming majority belong to the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Some IDPs in Puttalam and Mannar were able to return after the 2002 ceasefire, only to be displaced again in 2006 (Puttalam) or 2007 (Mannar). In Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts, the whole population was displaced during the last phase of the war (2008-2009).

IDMC counts 73,700 IDPs in the island, based on available data.

Sri Lanka’s own truth-seeking mechanism, the Lesson Learnt Reconciliation Commission had acknowledged that “The issue of Muslim IDPs who were displaced from five districts (Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya) due to LTTE threats as far back as October 1990 remains one of the key post conflict challenges, which also has a significant impact on the process of reconciliation.”

With innate wisdom, 61-year-old Zeenathu Lebbe says: “Allah decreed a certain life and people are tested in different ways. Where the Prophet lived, the conditions must have been harder. We accept this. It makes us focus on other things such as a better tomorrow for our children and a better income to support families.”

Over the years, they have got new housing, and many houses in the area are now connected to the grid. But water supply is still poor and people still have to fetch water from community taps, in most cases. Suffering from unemployment, landlessness, poor infrastructure and harsh climate conditions, the Puttalam Muslim IDPs are also about a community’s resilience as well as quiet suffering.

“That comes from Islam and we derive strength from others who support us, especially during Ramazan,” says Farook Bawa, (60), another long-term displaced person from Mannar.

Muslims formed six per cent of the northern population, at the time of eviction. Forced by the conflict to leave their original northern homes, today they find themselves in displaced camps or live with host communities.

“We are poor people. But if all the displaced get a simple livable home by next Ramazan, which has been my wish for the past 25 years, I think God had heard my prayers,” says Farook Bawa, with hope in his eyes. And for all that they lack in terms of material wealth, this displaced community perhaps reflects what their religious taught them – to say true to their fate despite multiple challenges.

“When we break the fast, we do it together, for solidarity and brotherhood. That’s what has helped us survive all these years the tragedy of displacement, poverty and these harsh conditions of living,” says Mainathul Habeeba (54).

Adds Dawood Bawa: “We focus on our faith, not fate.”


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